Western Feminists and Muslim Women
Western Feminists and Muslim Women
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24 December 2008
Western Feminist Movement
The Role of Culture
The Arab World
The Gulf Crisis
The Afghan War
Women during the War
Changes after the War
It would be, then, politically paralyzing to claim that the old order of female difference has been overturned in favor of a new gender skepticism that on theoretical grounds disapproves of a historical, cross-cultural categories like "female," "feminine," and "woman." For many Western feminists, Muslim world represents mystery, darkness, chaos, absence and ambiguity. Nature, too, with its unrelenting rhythms of growth and decay speaks of concealment. Insofar as anything exists, it exists as unconcealed, and that is what we see when we look at present beings. But the way beings appear or are revealed is open to ambiguity, change, error, and further determinations because of their historical context and simply because of the incarnate nature of being. Thesis In their political and social activities, Western feminists did not take into account needs and wants of Muslim women but promulgated and imposed their own norms and principles.
Western feminists influenced social and political ideas of Muslim women thus through the lens of western world views. The advantage was that Western feminists promoted human values and personal freedom, equal rights and western ideas in Muslim countries. A body and nature formed solely by social and political significations, discourses and inscriptions are cultural products, disemboweled of their full existential content (Chatty and Rabo 12). One of the main objectives of the Western feminism is to give to the citizen of the new nation a feeling of dignity and importance resulting from that citizenship and from his ethnic origin, and to make him feel different from and superior to a citizen of another nation, even if both are Muslims. Islam, which is based on the equality of the faithful in the sight of God and on social doctrines which are both antiracist and anti-materialist, tends to lead in very different directions. Religious leaders, therefore, were generally not influential in the organization of independence in most of the new Muslim states. In fact, the leadership in most countries emphasized religion as a rallying point only where people of a different religion were perceived as a threat to the new state, as in Pakistan and Malaysia (Ghoussoub 4). This pattern of secular thinking, nationalism, and emphasis on material progress has continued to dominate the plans and actions of most governments in the Muslim world. In the past few years, the initial euphoria of independence has worn off. Material progress has lagged or has not brought the new era of happiness expected of it (Ahmed, 43).
The weakness of Western feminism in the East is that it did not take into account unique cultural values of the region. Islam is an active force in the lives of its adherents. It is neither a way of life manipulated by unshaven zealots in turbans nor an unresponsive religious system divorced from the lives of the faithful. Indeed, throughout its long history, Islam has never been unchanging. It has made innumerable adjustments and compromises as a result of its internal processes of questioning and reform, and it has acquired a richness and depth of experience that has enabled it to meet challenges creatively. This departure from the literalism of the earlier revivalists was facilitated by the modernists' use of an important intellectual approach: the effort to discover the spirit or the objectives of the Koranic teaching rather than holding mechanically to its literal meaning. Many Muslim women were deprived as chance to speak about their needs and desires (Bhabha 85).
Above all, new generations of educated or partly educated young people who have no personal recollecton of colonialism have found that the world seems to have no place for them. It is understandable that large numbers of these young people, mostly urban, and the poorer classes, rural and urban, whose lives have not witnessed great improvement over the past years, should begin to conclude that there must be a better way and that it must be sought through a return to the teachings of Islam -- a return to the basic values from which the fact of political independence had deflected their attention. This feeling in many countries is challenging the newer, but essentially imported, ideas about what is most important that have been put forward by the still dominant secular modernists. This challenge runs through the Muslim world as a common theme with wide national variations. In the present period it is a major source of concern for the leaders of Muslim states. It also has consequences for the West, for challenge to or rejection of Western concepts inevitably leads to doubts about and suspicion of relationships with the West, particularly with the United States (Naseef, 73).
Western feminists transform and disorientate the global society speaking about inequalities and poor education in Muslim countries. In Muslim society, some even claimed that the Koran made women the equal of men in all essential respects, that certain inequalities that had existed in Islam were largely due to social custom -- much of which was anti-Islamic -- and that some of these inequalities were due to misperceptions of the purposes of the Koran by medieval Muslim lawyers. Modernists thus distinguished between the principles, values, or objectives of the Koran, on the one hand, and some of its legal solutions, on the other (Ahmed, 55). With the increasing consciousness of the relevance of Islam to all aspects of national life, one can expect stronger pressure in the future for a greater accommodation between Islamic values and Western society and culture. Liberal and manpower education, as well as secularizing urbanization, would have to come to terms with the constant Muslim demand for the infusion of Islamic moral values in the process of economic, political, and socio-cultural changes (Ghoussoub 6). There is, therefore, an urgent need for the government and the Muslim pressure groups to start communicating with each other so that both parties can understand and appreciate their respective positions. The plight of the Muslim family and the education of the future generation are matters of serious concern to the morally conscious Malays in the government and to the Muslim community. The preservation of Islamic values ought to be maintained by both parties without incurring the sacrifice of the beneficial aspects of development. This balance between stability and change can only be sustained if the government and the Islamic groups can both express their concerns objectively, i.e., without being motivated primarily by selfish political party sentiments (Naseef, 43).
Through international organizations and non-government organizations Western feminists influenced ideas of Muslim women and deprived them a chance to choose their own life path. This nonpersonal self cannot be separated from its intermingling existence in things and in our personal life. This natural self cannot be separated from cultural self except in an artificial, abstract way. The intellectual activity of the modernist was primarily in the field of social problems, i.e., in the areas of political thought, education, rights of women, and later, in economics. Western feminists suppose that education is the main problem for Muslim women. They state that education is far more widespread among women in the urban middle and upper classes, and the urban occupational structure allows for a significant degree of participation by women in a variety of professions. These phenomena do not seem to be regarded by most urban Bangladeshis as inconsistent with Islam. Typically, however, in the countryside women's work is restricted to the home environment, within which they carry out child rearing and other domestic tasks as well as important activities in the processing of agricultural goods (Naseef, 61).
In general, it is likely that the changes that have occurred in the rural Bangladeshi family, particularly in recent decades, may be attributable to widespread poverty and population pressures, which surely have had a negative effect upon the quality of family life and the maintenance of traditional family forms. On the one hand, the government has been tempted to treat women as individuals outside the family context, perhaps to weaken the family as the intermediary organization between the state and the individual. On the other, it has recognized that its desire to see a rapidly rising Iraqi birthrate requires the family framework. Yet it seems that men's experiences and men's voices have constructed the knowledge by which we try to understand the implications of this crisis, not only for the peoples of the Arab region but also for those intellectuals (Arab or Western) whose task it is to analyze and explain such phenomena (Ghoussoub 4). One of the most important "discoveries" of the women's movement is that as women, we had been living in an intellectual, cultural, and political world from whose making we had been almost entirely excluded and in which we had been recognized as no more than marginal voices. The consequence of this discovery has been the emergence of a serious critique of mainstream social science (Ahmed, 88).
This is not a call for the imposition of a Western feminist perspective as the prism through which to experience and understand the situation of Arab women. On the contrary, whether the social scientist is Arab or Western, whether the discourse takes place in the harem or in the household, in the marketplace or the mosque—wherever women go about the business of living their lives—it is women's situation and experience that constitute the basis of social inquiry. It is impossible to account for one's directly experienced world, or how it is related to the worlds others directly experience, by remaining within the boundaries of the former (Nicholson, 43). Accounting for that initial "knowledge," and the social organization that sets it up for us, necessarily leads us back to an analysis of the total socioeconomic order. The structures that underlie and generate our own directly experienced world are social structures, and they bring us into unseen relations with others (Ahmed, 88).
Many western feminists misinterpret the role of a veil and family in life of Muslim women. The Arab world is rich with examples of women who experience various forms of oppression and who resist and struggle to change their lot. Such experiences are generally relegated by the current dominant mind-set of most observers to a sphere outside organized political activity and are dismissed as "private troubles" (Nicholson 76). Alternatively, when Arab women seek a voice of their own in defining the politics of the Middle East, they meet largely with ridicule, exclusion, or ostracism as a form of punishment for assuming the right to interpret their own role in society or, worse, daring to rewrite the script. A women's perspective as radical critique offers alternative criteria for defining political activities and issues, because by its very nature it thrusts directly to the center of discourse issues that have been previously declared private or nonpolitical. A women's perspective faces a double challenge: to struggle not only against political policies, structures, and arrangements but also against prevailing definitions of politics and modes of political explanation. A women's perspective is necessary to liberate us from the present concepts and methods of thinking within mainstream social science that reconstruct us as objects (Naseef, 81). From orientalist perspectives, eastern culture and people are weak enough to resist oppression so the role and task of Western feminists is to "save" women from imagined slavery (Goodwin, 42).
In reality, individually and through their organized activities, the women leaders of Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Indonesia have become a dynamic social force, helping to transform the life of their lands. The growing power of women in five widely diversified Moslem countries and India may be considered as representative of the remarkable forward movement of women in the entire East. Essentially the same currents of change--economic and technological, political and cultural--are transforming the life of the entire East. Women in all countries are vitally affected by the rapidly changing environment and are themselves playing a creative part along many lines in Eastern life (Naseef 87). Working and talking with many representative women in each country make it clear that in the diversity of their activities there is a remarkable unity of purpose and sense of direction. They are confronted by the common needs and problems of the East and are working toward a common goal. Women are actively participating in many phases of civic welfare and in the varied collective efforts to build national life on a sound basis. They are, however, concerned primarily with the specific needs of women and girls and are contributing their knowledge and special experience in all areas of life--the home and social welfare, business and professions, political life and public office--to the total advancement of women (Nicholson, 88).
The patriarchal home, the established pattern for economic as well as social reasons, offers little opportunity for independent family living, but the need for it is recognized, especially among the modern younger generation. The higher up in the social and economic scale and the more educated, the greater is the number of separate families, each with its own compound (Naseef 87). But whether there are separate homes or not, the feeling for the large family group remains and the dominant position of the head of the family is an accepted fact. Yet, though the traditional authority of the husband may not in general be questioned, educated women have considerable influence in family affairs and there is a growing sense of partnership in marriage which is the natural result of mutual interests through education. Social life is also reaching beyond the narrow limits of the immediate family to include the ramifications of the larger family relationship, and even the broader circle of close friends (Moghissi, 92). The degree of social intermingling varies with individual families. A number of young married couples who are quite advanced and Westernized meet regularly for small social gatherings in their homes. These normal social groups of young married couples, though numerically negligible, represent a significant departure from the traditional social segregation required by the veil, and are an example for other liberal groups. The members are usually those who studied in Europe and America and most of them are in educational or Government service, or young business men with their wives, who may have been in the United States. Of basic concern to educated Afghan women, as to Moslem women elsewhere, are the two related problems of polygamy and divorce. The uneducated women accept fatalistically whatever comes.(Moghissi, 86). The small educated minority is aware of social injustice and legal inequality, but as a whole makes no vocal protest. Some returned students seriously discuss polygamy and voice an adverse opinion. Polygamy is said to be declining, but it still occurs in all classes and is accepted as standard practice if a man is without a son. The usual apology for four wives--"all are treated equally"--is made. A government official in Kabul demonstrated this principle by building four identical good-looking brick houses on a main street for his four wives. Unilateral divorce is a major threat to the security of women, irrespective of class, but the uneducated are more vulnerable (Ahmed, 87).
During the Afghan war, Afghan women living in the atmosphere of purdah, constantly restricted by the veil, are at the same time living outside the purdah system in the ideas of a modern world. They are called upon to develop the ability to live in two worlds, accepting the requirements of purdah as long as necessary, but at the same time becoming oriented to a modern way of life. For the typical uneducated woman behind the veil, life is simple--a single pattern in her clothing, relationships and way of life. The educated Afghan woman faces the constant problem of adjusting to two different ways of life, both in the home and in her growing outside relationships. A concrete evidence of the ability of the Afghan woman to adapt herself to two techniques of living is shown in the practical matter of dress--the Western dress adopted some years ago for outside activities, social relations and general purposes, and the Afghanistan costume worn to meet the desire for comfort in the home (Bhabha 63). The problems involved in Western clothes, as already indicated, are met resourcefully, with taste and distinctive style. Dress is only an external detail of living in the present complicated pattern of life. But dress is an important part of the total orientation to modern life, where the successful adoption of modern modes and mores may have special value in preparing for the more basic changes later when the veil is ultimately discarded (Moghissi 11). The stylish Western costume under the chaderi is a striking illustration of the two different techniques of living that typify the life of modern Afghan women.
After September 11, many western feminists supported the war in Afghanistan seeing it as the only chance for Muslim women to receive equal rights with men and democratic freedoms. They did not take into account deaths and grievances faced by Muslim women who lost their relatives and friends. Many western feminists suppose that the government and local authorities would pay more attention to women's questions and rights (Goodwin, 41). This brief view of the present situation in respect to education makes clear two basic facts: first, the urgent need of increased promotion of education in general; second, the marked disparity between girls' and boys' education, which is the inevitable result of the purdah system requiring separate schools for girls from the first grade to the University. The Government of Afghanistan in its effort to promote equal educational opportunity for both girls and boys, the desirable and ultimate goal, is confronted with the exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, problem of developing and supporting a dual system of primary and secondary education. The present stage in the development of education of girls, measured in the flat reality of statistics, presents a discouraging picture of tremendous needs and problems (Moghissi 13). However, viewed in the perspective of the thirty-five years since the beginning of girls' education in Afghanistan, the present situation shows evidence of progress and promise for future growth. A branch of the Women's Welfare Society has been organized in Kabul in an area of special economic need. Establishing branches in the various provinces is contemplated if funds can be secured. The Society is now under the Ministry of Education (Bhabha 77). The governments in the East, under the pressure to achieve universal literacy as rapidly as possible and provide educational facilities for their people, have given high priority to quantity rather than quality and have concentrated their efforts on the expansion of education as the immediate goal. Leading educators in each country, while recognizing the continuing necessity for the major emphasis on expansion, realize the importance of special development along a number of lines. The economic life of women in Afghanistan is limited as yet to those in professions. Of great significance during the past decade has been the development of the professional life of Afghan women, to which reference has been made in previous sections in some detail. Ten years ago there were already teachers and nurses, as there had been for some years (Goodwin, 41). Teaching has been highly regarded in Afghanistan as in other Moslem countries; nursing has had little status. These two professions are a necessity, since women in purdah can be served only by women. Government policy has been favorable to the development of the professions for women which can be carried on within the purdah pattern and are recognized as a necessary service. In the non-professional general employment field of work for women in the middle class, there has been as yet practically no progress. There are many young women of secondary education ready for occupational opportunity when the veil is lifted (Bhabha 77). Despite this rapid influx of women in general, and married women with children in particular, into the paid labor market, their integration remains far from complete. Indeed, few aspects of social life display as much uniformity among countries as do the patterns that indicate the separate and restricted position of women workers. Women are overrepresented among part-time workers This sex segregation is measured in two ways: by the degree of sex-typing—that is, the percentage of all workers in an industry or occupation who are female—and by the degree of female concentration— that is, the percentage of all female workers who work in an industry or occupation
Because of their recognized capacity in this field, secretarial service offers many opportunities to trained and educated young women who must be self-supporting. There is a growing demand in government agencies at all levels and in foreign business firms for trained secretarial and clerical service. Yet the entrance of women into this especially favorable field of work is curtailed by lack of training facilities and by the fact that it is traditionally a male occupation (Moghissi, 16). There are a growing number of commercial courses for typing and stenography on the medium standard, i.e., ninth or tenth grade, in girls' schools and also courses on a commercial basis in large cities. But in each country there is special need for professional secretarial training on a higher level. A successful effort is being made in several countries in the East by leading educators to promote more creative citizenship education through Government programs. This development is a natural result of the widespread renaissance of nationalism in the East today, highlighted in countries that have recently acquired independence and have established universal suffrage. Creative citizenship education stresses the development of individual civic responsibility through independent initiative in action. The emphasis on creative homemaking in the teaching of home science will give the present students--future homemakers and teachers--a basis for developing clearer understanding and closer relationship between the home and society. Women leaders in each country and foreign technical assistants are having a formative influence in the development of home science teaching in schools and colleges, helping to rainse it to full professional status (Chatty and Rabo 55).
In sum, western feminists have a negative impact on consciousness and self-identity of Muslim women. The importance of feminist movement in Muslim countries is that it helps women to overcome old traditions and adopt a western life style, start education and enter workforce. At the same time that equal opportunity policies ar beginning to be implemented, many policy-makers and activists are questioning the extent to which equal opportunity policy is an effective strategy for reducing the wage gap. Instead, it is being suggested that equal opportunity policy needs to be supplemented by other policies specifically designed to attack that problem head-on.
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Goodwin, Jan. The Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence of the Islamic World. New York: Penguin, 2001
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Moghissi, Haidah . Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of Postmodern Analysis. London: Zed, 2003.
Naseef, Fatima Umar. Women in Islam: A Discourse in Rights and Obligations. Cairo: International Islamic Committee for Woman and Child, 1999
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